Heba Alshibani did not set out to become a journalist. She had expected to become an academic, as many members of her Libyan family had before the February 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi [Gaddafi]. But when the violence did not abate after Qaddafi’s overthrow, Alshibani witnessed events that she felt compelled to record and share. She had no training as a journalist, but had a penchant for exposing “wrong-doings,” as she puts it, and felt an almost instinctive need to bring them to light.
Her ascent required her to take risks in a media environment that had been restrictive for decades, especially for women. “When I ran a show on women’s issues, I discussed issues that are never brought up in Libyan households, like rape,” she recently recalled from her home in neighboring Malta, where she works as a presenter for Libya’s Channel. “I was not going to have a housekeeping show given the times that the country was experiencing.” So Alshibani began documenting street violence on her cellphone, and soon found herself sharing her videos with local media. That led other outlets to use her reports, and within two years she had worked her way up through Libyan TV in production and with Reuters Libya from a presenter to a manager.
But Alshibani soon found the story turning on her.
Some Libyan political figures did not take kindly to her “directness,” she said. In 2014, she felt compelled to flee after one of them sent her a threatening message through a fellow journalist in Misrata [a city in northwestern Libya] warning her to leave or face the consequences. She declined to name the official for security reasons, she said, but she did as she was told, under Reuters’ direction. Now she covers Libya from abroad, one of many female journalists who have left the country due to continuing instability and a deep-seated cultural conflict that confers upon them a dangerously high profile.
“Everyone including my mentor advised me to leave,” Alshibani said. “Finally, one day last year, the security personnel at Reuters came to me and said that I had to evacuate with my husband and children.” After three frenetic years of covering assassinations, bombings, migrant crises and the disintegration of the country into “multiple Libyas,” her exit was abrupt. She has not returned.
During the four-year battle between rival factions to control Libya’s post-revolutionary political landscape, women journalists have become acutely aware of their visibility. Reporting in the unstable country is challenging for anyone, but particularly for women, owing to deep-seated cultural views about gender roles and the efforts of rival factions to coerce the media – especially local outlets – to take sides.
Despite the loosening of Qaddafi-era press restrictions and a proliferation of print publications and TV channels since the uprising, there is no consensus among women journalists interviewed for this story, many of whom declined to be named due to fear of repercussions, about whether journalism in Libya has benefitted from Qaddafi’s departure or whether women have greater opportunities or are treated equally as professionals today. Qaddafi’s government limited the media in the name of stability and order, and since his overthrow, the media has been privatized and opened to a greater diversity of voices. The downside is that the diversity of voices can be inflammatory, and journalists are frequently manipulated or targeted by rival factions – a situation made more dangerous due to the lack of security. Stratified gender roles only add to the risks for female journalists.
The majority of humanitarian organizations, U.N. agencies and foreign media offices left Libya during the summer of 2014, when the highly contested June elections led to renewed clashes between rival militias. Few Western reporters, male or female, have returned.
A decrease in on-the-ground reporting has created a media vacuum, which has been exploited by rival factions who seek to co-opt remaining coverage. Writing for the Committee to Protect Journalists in the 2015 edition of Attacks on the Press, Fadil Aliriza noted that facts in post-revolutionary Libya are “hostage to politics” as a result of competing narratives from rival factions. “The extreme polarization of the media landscape, as well as calls for violence through the media and the bullying of journalists by militias, has contributed to a discrediting of the few real remaining journalists who are trying to report the facts,” Aliriza wrote.
In April 2015, Reporters Without Borders reported that among the more recent women journalists to flee Libya was Sirine El Amari, who had been France 24’s Tripoli correspondent before leaving in November 2014 due to threats and repeated questioning by authorities in Tripoli about her reports.
Some of the challenges that journalists face in Libya’s highly fragmented political terrain are common to many conflict zones, with geography and alliances often governing access to stories and influencing journalists’ personal safety. But in Libya, all sides seem to recognize the importance of controlling the media narrative, and tend to see reporters and photographers as integral to the conflict, shaping the narrative and, in some cases, prompting action. Women journalists often represent potent symbols, and inevitably experience an added layer of difficulty.
Even in pre-revolution Libya, being a female reporter was considered “social suicide,” according to journalist Manal Bouseifi, who began reporting for a state news outlet in the early 2000s when media outlets were under Qaddafi’s control. Bouseifi contends that such attitudes toward women journalists, especially those choosing to cover politics and hard news, have prevailed among conservative factions and even among many average Libyans.
As in many post-Arab Spring countries, political instability and violence in Libya is frequently reduced by the Western media to a contest between secular and Islamist groups. Though the reality is far more complicated, there is no question that the media is frequently caught in the crossfire. As a result, many women journalists have felt compelled to cover Libya’s turmoil from neighboring Tunisia, Egypt or, in Alshibani’s case, Malta, which are considered relative safe havens in the region, though with more than a few asterisks attached. Some who fled said they have stopped reporting due to intimidation or lack of direct access to the country.
Alshibani, a member of a prominent Libyan family who married into an equally powerful clan, went into hiding at the start of the 2011 revolution due to her fear of persecution and kidnapping. During that period, many Libyans were afraid even to watch the news on TV for fear of reprisal, she said. “People were huddling around television sets and watching news with the volume at its lowest,” she recalled.
Today, rival militias and competing government entities seldom agree on anything beyond the importance of controlling the media, which makes the stakes extremely high for journalists, whatever their gender or affiliation, but particularly for women, who stand out. In August 2013, the Guardian reported that a journalist had been targeted by gunmen in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. Khawlija al-Amami, a presenter for the al-Ahrar TV station, had been shot at by gunmen who pulled up beside her car. She later received a text message warning her to “stop your journalism” or be killed. In April 2015, TV journalist Muftah al-Qatrani was shot dead in his office at al-Anwar, a privately owned television production company.
An estimated 1,700 armed groups were active in Libya in 2015, according to the Global Conflict Tracker of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think-tank. One female foreign journalist who has covered Libya since the beginning of the revolution, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said the proliferation of armed groups has led to a “fierce battle for narrative,” and that the diversity of voices in Libya has contributed to increasing polarization over those competing narratives. In addition to physical threats, women journalists in Libya report having been socially ostracized, sexually harassed, attacked on social media and generally discriminated against.
Though some women journalists say they were grudgingly tolerated during the Qaddafi era, all journalists were required to toe the government line. Today, they have greater freedom to report, but that freedom is fraught with perils. Comparatively relaxed views of gender roles are typically limited to cities such as Tripoli [Libya’s capital city] and Misrata, yet even there, dark undercurrents exist.
This story originally appeared as a chapter of the 2016 edition of “Attacks Against the Press,” produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Part Two of the article will follow soon.